Space News is reporting that NASA has defined a baseline Europa Lander mission. However, the project is likely to cost several billion dollars, so the space agency has started to explore cheaper alternatives. The europa lander is an initiative of Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA funding. The mission will land on Europa, an ice shrouded Moon Of Jupiter, and take samples of its surface to examine in for signs of life. Europa is thought to have a warm water sub-surface ocean where alien life may reside.

Why is the Europa Lander so expensive?

Except for the Huygens probe that landed on Titan, no one has landed on a moon of an outer planet. Europa presents a number of challenges, including lack of not an atmosphere and proximity to a planet in Jupiter that is hot with radiation. The surface of the moon may be broken and uneven, not very suitable for landing something on it.

The plan currently is for the Europa Lander to launch on a Space Launch System rocket in 2025 and enter Jupiter orbit in 2030 with a landing to occur in 2031. The use of the SLS will allow the probe to go directly to Jupiter, and not have to use time-consuming gravity assist maneuvers that previous probes to the Outer Planets have had to use.

However, the use of the SLS will increase the cost of the mission/

The Europa Lander will also have to carry with it a considerable amount of fuel, first to insert itself into Jupiter orbit, then to effect a landing on Europa. Thus most of the 16.6 metric tons of the lander will be propellant. The vehicle itself will mass just 42.5 kilograms.

It will be powered by a battery and last for 20 days altogether on Europa’s surface.

How is NASA trying to cut the cost of the lander?

Thus far, NASA is looking at payload. In order to reduce the cost of the lander, it has to reduce its size, which means some of the science instruments may have to be cut. Also, perhaps not as many samples will be gathered as currently planned.

One of the problems is that the Europa Lander will be coming hard on the heels of the Europa Clipper, which will orbit Jupiter and make numerous passes of the moon of Jupiter to scan its surface from space. Culberson may be able to swing funding for both. However, he may not be in Congress through the entire development phase of the mission. Prudence dictates that ways should be found to trim the Europa Lander’s cost in case of Sticker Shock.